Brian Epstein

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Brian Epstein Pencil Portrait
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Benedict Cumberbatch, well known on British television for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, is to star in a long overdue biopic of Brian Epstein. The film, to be produced by Tom Hanks via the Playtone banner, will largely focus on The Beatles manager’s personal life rather than on his relationship with the band. The project is a timely one, for at times over the last four decades, it’s as if he’s been written out of the story, yet it was his vision that made them the world’s biggest theatrical attraction.

He was a gay man in an era when homosexuality was illegal, and he led a classic double life, lying about his sexuality even whilst pursuing gay and straight men with reckless abandon. Most tellingly of all, he left no wife or children to protect his legacy or promote his name; an unfortunate coda in view of The Beatles’ increasingly critical re-evaluation of his business dealings in the years following his premature death at the age of thirty two. If the new Cumberbatch movie is able to offer a critical reappraisal of Epstein’s credentials, it will arrive not a moment too soon.

Unfortunately, the circumstances of Epstein’s death have overshadowed his life, and he is invariably portrayed in most accounts of The Beatles story as a self-destructive and rather forlorn figure, vainly battling to maintain control of his burgeoning entertainment empire. Jewish and homosexual, he was urbane, well read and cultivated – the ultimate party host. In 1964, he was moving in social circles, hitherto unimaginable for a Liverpudlian businessman who had been managing the family store a mere three years earlier.

Despite his comfortable upbringing, good looks and high intelligence, Epstein had two big strikes against him. Firstly, he was Jewish (a descendant of Russian immigrants,) in a society rife with anti-Semitism. Although Jews in Britain did not face the kind of prejudice and violence they encountered in continental Europe, particularly France, anti-Semitism frequently reared its ugly head in the north of England, and heavily Irish Catholic community in Liverpool porovided no exception.

As a lonely, sensitive and spoiled adolescent, Epstein longed to escape the dull, dowdy, decaying town of Liverpool to make his mark in the arts and theatre in glamorous London. However, his enrolment in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) ended in failure and disappointment and this ‘artistic setback’ quite possibly set the tone for the rest of his life.

In 1957, while in London, he suffered the humiliation of an arrest for “importuning” in public bathrooms. In return for soliciting sex with men, he was fortunate to avoid imprisonment, though the ordeal nonetheless traumatized him. The military had also determined him physically and psychiatrically “unfit” to serve, due in no small part to his homosexuality.

Depressed by his failure to establish any kind of career in London, Epstein reluctantly returned to Liverpool to work at his family’s furniture store and (most notably) their record and musical instrument store, North End Music Stores, or NEMS.

The shy, rather awkward young man became a great success at running these establishments, using his theatrical gifts for presentation to his advantage. But bored and restless with life in provincial Liverpool, he would ultimately find the answer to his hopes of making it big when he received a record request for ‘My Bonnie’ by Tony Sheridan and The Beatles.

If we compare his personality with that of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager, it becomes apparent why he became, in the words of old friend Brian Wolfson, ‘the wrong man in the wrong industry at the wrong time. Not wrong for the music industry but for his personal health, his emotional life and his sensitivity.’

One only has to imagine thwarted ‘artistic leanings’ allied to management of four musicians at the vanguard of a cultural revolution, to recognise the ultimate frustration of ‘fame by association’. Had he been nothing more than a businessman, then the great fortune that brought him The Beatles, would have sustained his equanimity throughout the remainder of a presumably, much longer life. As it was, his yearning for the theatrical stage still burned brightly, especially after cessation of life on the road with The Beatles in August 1966.\

Recommended listening

Brian Epstein interview (Bill Grundy – BBC radio March 23, 1964)

Brian Epstein/Murray the K interview (WOR-FM Radio) 1967

Brian is interviewed in New York City by Murray the K for WOR-FM Radio in March 1967. He had
travelled to New York to announce the merger of his company NEMS with the Robert Stigwood Organisation, and to promote Stigwood’s premier acts the Bee Gees, Cream and The Who.

Epstein’s business associate Nat Weiss would later recall:

“Before he was to give a radio interview with Murray the K, I came into the room (in the Waldorf Towers) to find Brian slurring his language. Obviously he had taken several Nembutals. He had this interview coming up and there were people in the waiting room waiting to see him, and he was like this. I found the bottle. I had to wrestle with him on the floor, throw the bottle out of the window of the hotel and just yell at him. Eventually, with coffee and things like that, we got him together and we took him to the interview.”

In spite of this- and Murray’s incessant, self-indulgent waffling- Epstein quickly sobers up and provides fascinating insights into a variety of subjects, including rumours of a Beatles split, the work-in-progress that would become Sgt. Pepper, the “Bigger Than Christ” furore of the 1966 US tour, and enthusiastic appraisals of Jimi Hendrix and the Four Tops.

It’s interesting to speculate that the manner in which The Beatles broke up might well have been averted had Epstein lived. The inevitable might even have been delayed. More importantly, he would have brokered an environment in which communication channels remained open. But therein lie several selfish musical motives promulgated by millions around the globe. In reality, the two persons most affected by his death were his mother Queenie (widowed only weeks before her son’s passing) and his younger brother Clive. The Beatles themselves – displaying all the resilience of youth – would reconvene only four days after his passing at McCartney’s St John’s Wood home to plan “Magical Mystery Tour.”

Recommended viewing

The Brian Epstein story – Arena (BBC Tv – 1998)

A two-part BBC documentary detailing the life and premature death of Brian Epstein, one of the most influential managers to ever enter the rock & roll arena. Combining rare ’60s footage and present-day interviews with the likes of Paul McCartney and Marianne Faithfull, the documentary traces Epstein’s life from his beginnings as the child of a Lithuanian Jewish retailer to his fateful visit to Liverpool’s Cavern Club one night in November 1961, when he became acquainted with four young Merseyside lads.

Unlike many profiles of people associated with The Beatles, The Brian Epstein Story doesn’t frame its subject in terms of Beatlemania, but instead offers a portrait of Epstein as a man who, despite the trappings of celebrity, remained somewhat of a dignified enigma both during his life and after his death.

It’s a rather sanitised programme; the principal interviewees understandably protective of his memory. Unfortunately, director Anthony Wall was either unable to locate or chose to exclude key testimonies from former lovers. Lennon’s recollection of the infamous spanish interlude with his manager – as relayed to close friend Pete Shotton – suggests that Epstein was a homosexual bordering on assexual, so benign being his bedroom proclivities. Corroborative evidence from other parties would have offered further insights into his personality, yet Wall chose instead to tread familiar ground albeit with well paced and incisive guest interviews. Nevertheless, for a near two hour documentary it remains a missed opportunity, although the programme remains a yardstick by which all other Epstein profiles will be measured.

Panorama – Brian Epstein (BBC Tv 30/3/64)

This 15-minute Panorama featurette included interviews with Brian, Cilla Black and Gerry Marsden, plus stock footage of The Beatles in America and at an airport arrival. There’s also a shot of Prince Philip presenting an award on the Carl Allen ceremony on 23 March 64.\

Epstein Press Conference - New York City : 6/8/66

Mortified by the adverse US press reaction to Lennon’s ‘Jesus Christ’ statement, Brian flew on ahead of the boys to smooth the waters before the start of the Beatles’ third American tour. As his New York Attorney Nat Weiss would later recall, Epstein was prepared – if necessary – to cover all the promoter costs incurred to date. Cancelling the tour was more important to him, than exposing the group to any risk of physical harm.

Recommended reading

The Man Who Made the Beatles: An Intimate Biography of Brian Epstein (Ray Coleman) 1989

Over 460 pages, Coleman, former editor-in-chief of Melody Maker and author of John Lennon: The Definitive Biography (1984) – unfolds the complex, multifaceted personality of the Beatles manager, peppering his account with engrossing insights, unseen photographs and private letters (showing Epstein’s flowery handwriting). Written with the support and encouragement of the Epstein family, Coleman recounts Brian’s erratic and eventful life, from his birth at 4 Rodney Street, Liverpool, to a rapid change of schools, his coming-out to his parents, the torturous identity problems he suffered as a Jewish homosexual, the short-lived theatrical training he received at RADA, his work at the family-owned NEMS record store on Great Charlotte Street to his discovery of the supergroup.

Tail ended with a 40+ page chronology, this is Coleman’s definitive biographical work.


Beatle Business

Mr Brian Epstein